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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Death of Napoleon

Simon Leys

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To purchase The Death of Napoleon

Title: The Death of Napoleon
Author: Simon Leys
Genre: Novel
Written: 1986 (Eng. 1991)
Length: 130 pages
Original in: French
Availability: The Death of Napoleon - US
The Death of Napoleon - UK
The Death of Napoleon - Canada
La mort de Napoléon - Canada
The Death of Napoleon - India
La mort de Napoléon - France
La morte di Napoleone - Italia
La muerte de Napoleón - España
  • French title: La mort de Napoléon
  • Translated by Patricia Clancy and the author
  • Independent Foreign Fiction Award, 1992
  • The Death of Napoleon was the basis for the 2001 film The Emperor's New Clothes, directed by Alan Taylor and starring Ian Holm

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Our Assessment:

A- : nice little meditation

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Sunday Times A 18/7/1993 Phil Baker
The Times . 15/8/1991 Anne Barnes
TLS . 9/8/1991 D.J.Enright
Wall St. Journal . 8/5/2015 Martin Riker

  From the Reviews:
  • "This is a superbly inventive little novella that handles heavy ideas about personal identity with great lightness and charm." - Phil Baker, Sunday Times

  • "The story is told from the outside and the dilemma is never overstated. If we care to ponder this man's experience and its philosophical implications we are free to do so." - Anne Barnes, The Times

  • "(A)n elegant and engaging piece of alternative history, gently tragic and wryly comic" - D.J.Enright, Times Literary Supplement

  • "Beyond its delightful invention and whimsy, this comic tale of Napoleon’s imaginary yet all-too-human tribulations poses serious questions about the relationship of truth, history and the imagination. (...) The truth of Napoleon, Leys’s novel proposes, is that he was a man, subject to laws of chance, indifference and mortality, one among many participants in the human comedy." - Martin Riker, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The premise of The Death of Napoleon is that the emperor did not spend his last years on St.Helena but rather escaped, leaving a double in exile in his place. The novella begins with the last stage of Napoleon making his way back to France, after a roundabout escape by way of Tristan de Cunha and Cape Town. Traveling as a deck hand, under the name of Eugène Lenormand, he has to humbly bide his time aboard ship -- but it's only a matter of time, as there has long been in place a:

huge secret organization that had been prepared to propel him back into power, and which needed only one spark of his genius to be set in motion.
       So far everything has gone like clockwork, the elaborate plan with its many cogs surviving even the death, two years earlier, of the mathematician who had devised the "complex mechanism" of this gigantic scheme. The next step is the rendezvous that has been arranged for Napoleon when his ship docks at Bordeaux -- but travel-plans are changed and the ship bypasses that stop, heading on to Antwerp instead. Napoleon expects the masterminds behind the grand scheme will make the necessary adjustments, but Napoleon expects too much.
       Still optimistic, Napoleon imagines everything will fall into place again if he reaches Paris, so he sets out -- still incognito, of course -- for the French capital. A detour to Waterloo is too tempting to resist, with Napoleon finding history is already muddied here. He finds a haven in Paris, but his arrival coïncides with bad news: "The Emperor is dead", the double back on St.Helena inconveniently dying before the real Napoleon has opportunity to triumphantly reassert himself.
       Napoleon bides his time and looks for opportunities, but finds a world that, while needing a leader like him, has also moved on. His many skills come in handy in organizing the business of the woman who had taken him in, but he can't quite embrace the advice he's given:
Believe me, just concentrate on making your fortune in watermelons and your future will be a thousand times more enviable than you can imagine.
       Napoleon can largely maintain his cover throughout -- only once is he recognized outright -- but his real-life identity is apparent enough to at least trigger something in many of those he has dealings with. He also encounters delusional Napoleons -- some more convincingly Napoleonic in appearance than he now is. Trying to reveal himself to the woman who has taken him in, her reaction is not so much one of disbelief as fear: disbelief is hardly necessary -- it's obvious to her he can't be the 'real' Napoleon -- but she fears for his mental state if he can make such an outlandish claim.
       Very nicely written and with a great deal of gentle humor, The Death of Napoleon is a charming story, its pathos not heavy-handed even as the tale resonates with considerable power. A meditation on identity, reputation, and history, it's a quite beautifully crafted little story.

- M.A.Orthofer, 16 April 2015

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The Death of Napoleon: Reviews: The Emperor's New Clothes - the film: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Belgian-born author Simon Leys (actually: Pierre Ryckmans) lived 1935 to 2014.

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